How Grand Rapids Will Live Or Die

October 5, 2002
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Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce leaders next week will review a study by Design Plus, Grand Valley State University and Millennium Research Group advocating public and private investment in an entertainment district downtown. It is a process that should move ahead with a specific list of agenda items to be addressed.

Such a plan is more than an economic stimulus; it is one of absolute necessity if the Grand Rapids statistical area is to retain and attract the so-called “creative class” employees necessary to continue business in the Information/Technology Age. What makes an entertainment district crucial to economic fortitude? Quality of life. Exhaustive research and new cities of distinction are rising based on the “creative class” expectation that their personal life is a community life — certainly good news for this region as mergers and acquisitions leave one bewildered as to the future of community beneficence. The Internet has made working for any company — or many companies — from anywhere in the world a reality. And so the distinction of where one lives in one’s career pursuit (San Antonio, Boston, Seattle, Grand Rapids) becomes the bottom line, and it’s hooked to quality of life. The vast majority of these individuals desire to live in urban centers, not the suburbs, and judge communities based on the diversity of the population and community tolerance for that diversity. That urbane residents might turn the tide for Grand Rapids Public Schools is a huge issue of benefit to consider by itself.

The urgency of the local study is underscored in a new book by Richard Florida, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” which is compared to the landmark William Whyte ’56 classic, “The Organizational Man.” Lewis Branscomb, Harvard University, writes that the book “…is an insightful portrait of the values and lifestyles that will drive the 21st century economy, its technologies and social structures. To understand how scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and other self-motivated, creative people are challenging the traditional structures of the 20th century society, read this book.”

What makes it especially crucial to Grand Rapids?

This is a community rooted in and with a legacy of varied creative design work. A community known to be home to some of the top designers and creative professional talent in the world.

The current major forces in re-creation and stimulation of this legacy are nationally recognized as the best places to work in this region: Steelcase, Herman Miller and Haworth. All of these larger-than-life entities are laying off employees, and sending would-be young employees elsewhere. Or the 20-somethings are choosing to create their futures elsewhere.

Florida was in Grand Rapids to speak last week, further emphasizing the need for community leaders to welcome diversity and build the infrastructure needed to retain and recruit against the brain and talent drain in the community.

The Michigan Smart Growth Conference held last month in Grand Rapids also made note of the body of research in “Rise of the Creative Class.” Michigan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO James Barrett noted during the conference, “Business is keenly aware of quality of life issues.”

The conference outlined particular issues for action: reverse urban abandonment by eliminating taxpayer funded subsidies for sprawl; coordination of land development planning between cities and neighboring communities; and rejuvenation of existing public institutions, streets and parks. (The latter certainly underscores the significance of the county’s planned Millennium Park.)

If Grand Rapids’ legacy is to stay alive through the next generation of entrepreneurs, designers, technicians, medical researchers and other professionals, it becomes a question of where to live, not where to work.  

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